Sunday, May 5, 2013

What's the hardest language in the world?

Of the six thousand languages of the world, which is the most difficult for an English-speaker to learn?

It's a question I've long asked myself. Part of the reason I'm so fascinated by the question is that other linguists and enthusiasts do such a poor job of answering the question. Some hide behind question-retorts like, "Well, what do you mean by hardest?" or "What's the criteria for hardest?" While those questions are important, they also kill the fun by ending the conversation in a long-winded explanation that all languages are equal in content delivery. Yes, I think to myself, but that doesn't mean that the underlying structures of delivery are equally apprehensible by an English speaker.

So for this blog post and perhaps other posts to come, I will explore what I believe are the hardest languages to learn for a native English speaker. Previous attempts tend to focus on politically important languages: Japanese, Polish, Mandarin, Hungarian. Languages that are widely spoken and are globally important. Sure, Mandarin has a nightmarish writing system and Japanese has a painful content delivery system, but what about Northeast Caucasian languages that have an enormous inventory of phonemes and a fearsome system of vowel harmonies. Japanese and Mandarin are discussed because people bother to learn them. I intend to consider all languages.

This, of course, unfortunately means that many hundreds of qualified candidates will be overlooked because there is simply too little information or (more likely) I haven't read more than a sentence or so about them. My apologies in advance. If you know a good language to consider, please let me know in the comments. A handful of other very considerably difficult tongues must be skipped because our knowledge of the language is incomplete. From what we know of Hurrian and Sumerian, they are frustrating ancient languages, worthy of any list like mine. But our knowledge of the languages is grossly incomplete and therefore I condemn the tongues to the soil. Sorry, guys!

Today's candidate for most difficult language is an old favorite:


Basque is a language isolate spoken by ~300,000 people in northern Spain and the far western reaches of France. It is part of a category of Paleo-European languages that are unrelated. Paleo-European languages are languages that were spoken before the invasion of Indo-European and Uralic tongues. The Germanic languages like English and German; the Italic languages like Spanish and French; the Uralic languages like Finnish and Hungarian; Balto-Slavic languages like Russian, have all done a very good job at eliminating all the old tribal languages that were once spoken thousands of years ago. Among all of the ancients, only Basque survives. It is unrelated to any other language on earth, though we know a related dialect of Basque called Aquitaine existed during the time of Julius Caesar. So why is it so difficult?

1. Ergativity

Basque a completely ergative language, in fact it is the only totally ergative language in the world. All other ergative languages are actually "split-ergative," able to state things in either ergative or nominative cases, dependent on tense, structure, or class. What's an ergative sentence? It's where a subject "behaves" like an object. Wikipedia has a good example. While in English we can say "I moved her" or "she moved," ergative speakers would have to say the equivalent to "I moved her" or "her moved." But a better example might come from a short list of ergative verbs that exist in English. The verb to break is an ergative verb in English.
"The window breaks." 
 "The window breaks me."
 Note that the verb breaks is not behaving the same in both examples. In the first, the window receives the action because the verb is behaving ergatively. Compare the same structure but with a non-ergative verb.
"She loves."
"She loves me."
In this example, the woman is doing the 'loving' in both sentences. Unlike the window that breaks, the woman directs her love to an object, regardless of whether the object is named or not. By placing 'me' at the end of a verb, we can quickly hear that the verb is ergative. "The window breaks me" sounds very funny and it should be "I break the window" (but not "I break"). Most verbs in English are not ergative.

2. Those damn cases

Cases are markings at the beginnings, middles, or ends of nouns that signify meaning. English has a few cases, most notably the genitive case, indicated by -s. In English, all cases can be replaced with a preposition or a postposition. "Flannery's house," a sentence with the genitive -s, can just as easily be read "The house of Flannery" where the of contains the meaning of the case marker -s. Latin had 5, 6 or 7 cases, depending on which era of Latin you are studying and whether you are counting archaic and relict cases like the Locative Case during the Silver Age of Latin.

Now, are you ready to blow your mind? Of course you are. Basque has seventeen cases with four forms to each case. That's 68 different forms for every noun.

3. The unrelated lexicon

Because Basque is a language isolate, the vocabulary is unrelated to English. That means that unlike French or Norwegian, you don't get to rely on hunting for cognates. To be fair, Basque has borrowed scores of Spanish words which makes it a bit easier, but that doesn't mean that a huge number of words sound totally different.

4. The verb

The verb is probably the most difficult aspect of the language. Verbs can either be finite or non-finite, which means... well... God, I'll just let Wikipedia explain if you really want to ruin your day.

So those are some reasons why Basque is a high-level candidate for most difficult language for an English speaker to learn. There are some caveats: the sizeable number of loans from Spanish and the very simple phonology make Basque a good deal more palatable.

Anyway, if you agree/disagree or if you have a suggestion of your own, leave me a comment below.


  1. Bullshit. Basque is not that tough a language to learn as the hype goes.